Thursday, June 9, 2011
THE DORSET JOURNEY, 2011 : LAO LEG
[Top, K H at Wattay International Airport, Vientiane; April 8th, '11; second, KH perusing Rasi's photographs at French Centre, Vientiane; third, KH at the Living Museum, Vientiane. Snaps by Cathy O'Brien.]
Approaching departure. The aisle seat chosen at STA this morning has mysteriously become a window seat. This is OK as long as no one takes the middle of the 3 seats. (I'm praying!)
Neatly attired businessman (from the look of his newspaper, Vietnamese) installed in my aisle seat. Stiff neck installed like a javelin down my right shoulder. I've struggled with it for two weeks and though i enjoyed my sessions with the osteo, it's distressingly present.
The flight begins. Suddenly remember i was writing The ABC Book [prose pieces] back in '75, to & fro London. Day-time flight window-seat view revealing plains of cloud -- frozen seas -- glaciers -- fantastic. Discover head-phones. Select 'Western Classical' : Chopin, Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op 63 # 3. No such facility 36 years ago. Allowed to be a 29 year old 'student' one enjoyed the modest service -- sometimes, for example, when menu didnt facilitate, cheese sandwiches etc brought by hostess angels.
Can i revive one of the characters of my book back then? Minovlar Ed? -- my hommage to John Riley (he was alive then).
Dinner is served! Potato salad thank you! Perceptively the hot meat dish is removed by the hostess. Wine sir? I'd like a red wine too (like my neighbour, the Vietnamese businessman, who fell asleep as he read his newspaper -- would that that was a dream! -- i mean, what sleep wld follow Ho Chi Minh City stock-exchange?) -- Ed says, I never had kids myself but... He's moved --not "to tears" but an absolutely sympathetic amusement. The baby (he's a toddler, son of Indian couple) has the widest brown eyes -- Ed wld talk to him with extended blinks & smiles, on the edge of telepathy -- but the toddler has other thoughts -- I wanted to call him Sachim -- a compliment, madame -- no, thought as much, wldnt know Tendulkar from Boycott -- But, not so fast Ed, --Tendulkar is a national hero, more than --& i loved him too --our Geoffrey, -- especially as a commentator let alone man in boater in South of France, notorious romance? -- someone (Melbourne poet Nick Whittock perhaps) will know.
Steal another red wine. Present the G & T plastic cup wch is twice as big as the little glass the first one came in. Chopin's Largo in C Minor through the headphones. Ed says i'm walking on those pompety-poms -- left leg, right leg. But now it's Trois Ecoissaises # 2, G M Op 72 # 4 -- Ah, trippity, trippity. Listen up : he was never a hippy. Who we talkin abaat? (is that Eliot enough for you?) Ed or meself, Christy?
Dark -- lights out -- I can see by the light of the tiny screen -- Ah, Fantasie Impromptu in C -- all my life -- whenever i hear it, "all my life" --
Anthony Bourdain's in me now. I want cognac! The perfect nightcap -- & cheese & biscuits -- NOW!
What's the difference? Nocturne in E Flat very similar to which track?
Ed's been to the galley -- brandy? -- cognac? -- Cheeky hostess asks wld you like them mixed together? --
Last time i fly so high, Ed thinks whilst smiling enigmatically --
Oooh he's got a nerve -- he can hold a note -- Nocturne in C, Op Posthume -- an insult to say 'trill'? --
Thin arms hidden in big jacket -- fingers with long nails poking out of sleeves --
Chopin for a day & a night --
But where are we now? Which jet-liner captain's porthole of the Earth?
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik -- we've changed (Karajan : Romance) -- The concert's only in my ears -- You can la-la-la to Eine Kleine, but... An adamant Ed : Whatabout Thais? Sacrilege! --
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok
What else but Thai massage -- head & shoulders, 400 baht or $US18. Not the severe work-out of 2009 but recalcitrant muscles required some punishment. Foot massage beside me was in dreamland as the masseuse stroked & kneaded his feet & calves. Clients three times as many women as men, & only one male masseur.
Hmong woman in turban-hat & something like a dreadlock marks out her territory, walks around like a rooster or the vainest sentry -- walks in & out of other people's conversations, participates in their hilarity but finally sits by herself, laughing at a joke that's on the rest of the world.
Years pass. Little whore in zebra-stripe one piece, silver heels, lies across two chairs, thighs parted, & the unsuspecting Frenchman, content to watch BBC World News, is suddenly aware of the gesture meant for whomever is sitting where he does. He turns away, drinks from water-bottle. The little whore sits up, looks around, lies down again, peekaboo -- perhaps catch a fallang in Bangkok, albeit at the airport. A touch of Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday in the apparent naturalness of this theatre. She's doin what she's doin & everyone's just getting on with it...
WW2. The propellors of Lao Air are giving the blitzed Englanders another shiver. Third World patch-up is the rare contradiction to contemporary western-style slick. The propellors are like hornets at the edge of my eye, window-side. Plane taxis forever around immense Suvarnabhuni. The little plane shudders like a bomber. Ho Chi Minh trail here we come.
Canals? Paddies? Wonderful waterlogged segmented farmland. Above the clouds. City's radial design. The Infinite City.
Friday, 8th April, '11
At I:Cat Gallery. Five oclock pm. Cat excuses herself to ride bike to pharmacy 10 minutes away. I'm left 'in charge' of the Gallery. I will take my job very seriously. When we arrived here by taxi from the airport around midday (--wonderful to be met : Catherine waving from upper level window as i looked up instinctively, on my stroll from runway to airport building --i waved, continued walking with red backpack & brown shoulder-bag, suddenly normal as off the train from Melbourne to Bendigo) --fatigued as i was from the flight & the frustrations in transit at Bangkok & again at Vientiane, couldnt resist inspecting everything she had up on the walls not to mention the tables & shelves of publications (books, cards including Bernard [Hemensley]'s Stingy Artist ephemera) --"Somerset Maugham, eat yr heart out!" i exclaimed --perhaps Mr Patrick not Somerset Maugham -- : an art gallery wch has its own integrity (well, art & literature's), but situated here in up-market (?) area of quintessential ex-colony --bustling & post-colonial but not sufficient to alter the basic vibe. Even now, with the home-time traffic --mostly motorbikes, old cars, small trucks-- one's able to take it easy --the warm temperature, the country-town atmosphere.
Saturday, 9th April, '11
C O'B : The temptation of a breeze... but then it withdrew...
K H : The Church of Latter Day Somerset Maughams...
[Late morning drink at the French bar whose reputation is for dinner but not lunch, tho' the young manager wearing Ramones t-shirt, offered us 'le snack' of crab sandwiches. We declined, explaining that for us snack would be bowl of peanuts to accompany the beer. He was somewhat miffed which we attempted to mollify by enthusing about his non-stop playing of The Doors in the bar!]
2pm. At I:Cat. Already a busy day. First stop, the French doctor --but the famous physio, Max, renowned for his sore-spot patches, wasnt there. In Thailand for the weekend. When he returns i'll be in the air again! The very nice Lao doctor gave me her opinion (muscular rather than malignant) but stressed she wasnt a physio. She offered a steroid which i superstitiously declined. She didnt charge me a fee though i offered. Conclusion : suffer until England (and it is pinging!) & consult doctor there.
Visited the "Living Museum"/ temple. Cathy tells me that a colleague recently claimed the normal temple protocols didnt apply, but she contradicted her : this museum still facilitates worship, it's a living museum. When the official at gift table roared at visitors one of whom was flashing her camera, scaring them out of the prayer area beside the magnificent buddha (where i'd awkwardly followed Cathy in her oblations, stiff legged, sore backed, even dropping my candle at the alter), the point was proven!
The only exhibition we saw today was by Lao photographer Rasi, at the French Centre. I thought the images were aerial shots --motorway, landscape, at night from aeroplane window. But Cathy laughed at me : they are lotus plants, without flower, modelled on Monet's water-lillies! Hmmm --of course!
Sunday, 10th April, '11
Sitting up in bed within the mosquito net pyramid (remembered from my '09 stay). Two comfortable nights so far except last night for maybe an hour, awoken by the loud drone & roar of --what? --low flying aeroplane? trucks? I imagined army trucks racing through Si Meung, which is Cathy's district, to the airport or the border --a war or coup or crack-down! --perhaps inspired by conversation with Cathy's German friend, writer & photographer Martina Sylvia Khamphasith, about the world political situation and her estimation of Laos "open hand" strategy --taking something from everybody so that nobody takes precedence thus keeping them all at bay.
Not long after we'd returned from morning walk, yesterday, in search of galleries, none of which were open just like '09, including what used to be Mr Patrick's gallery, now even more of a joke than it was becoming then (says Cath) --we'd sat down at I:Cat for a little peck of bread, olives, fetta, the large pot of Vegemite i'd brought her from Melbourne, & the inevitable pot of tea, when we had a visitor. Second of the day --Cath's gallery is open between 4 & 6 this weekend, as it was on Friday --(first visitor was Kate who'd picked book up from Collected Works for Cathy a year ago) -- Martina, who stayed for the rest of the day.
They had their photos (haiku-photos for postcards) to discuss, and Cat showed her the new phone recently purchased in Bangkok. Martina wanted our photo then modeled Cat's blue sun hat -- G & T, snack, photos & laughter.
We decided on Martina's recommendation to eat at French place she knew well. Lao & S.E. Asian has been her daily fare for twenty years so European at every other opportunity! Villa-style --veranda, where we sat, + inside restaurant. Pleasant if not sensual humidity; sandles, t-shirt, three-quarter pants; palms, bamboo, cigars : introduction to the Indo-Chinese novella... Cathy & Martina ordered pumpkin & cheese souffle respectively; i had mushroom & garlic pasta. We shared 2 tall bottles of Beer Lao. Gregarious & voluble French, British, Indian, Lao diners around us. Teachers, families, NGOs. Beautiful service from local kids learning the haute-cuisine restaurant ropes.
On long walk back to Si Meung --more or less in straight line with the French consulate dominating the streetscape, Cathy darting in & out of illumination & darkness with her camera like a rudder or persicope while Martina & i walked slowly beneath the rain trees. I asked Martina if she thought she'd ever return to Europe. She described the same dilemma as i've experienced : one could never afford such a lifestyle back home, not in Europe, not in England. Although Oz far dearer than S E Asia, it's also cheaper than Northern Europe. And Cathy confirms it for Laos vis-a-vis Australia : on less pay than a beginner Australian teacher she can afford her palatial apartment-gallery in Vientiane which would be impossible in Melbourne. Are we fortunate or doomed?!
Monday, 11th April, '11
Cat & i had recouperative day yesterday on eve of journey to Europe. One outing & that was to Qung's around the corner for a late lunch (declined invitation for breakfast there with Mai & friends, whom i first met here in '09 & saw last night at the French restaurant). Cathy's well known there of course. The old owner, "J.B.", Vietnamese, sat with us, told us his life story & also a prophecy perhaps from our lady of Lourdes --the Earth will almost be destroyed by another planet in 2013. Other elements of the prophecy have already ensued, e.g. catastrophes, wars, diseases. A complex man tho' perhaps similar contradictions are the rule here. In '09, Cathy showed me the free school he had for local kids, at the back of the laneway cafe, which he's given up now. He hasnt been well --heart did he say? Worked for the Americans, & the British (& the French?), speaks five languages in addition to ("my native tongue") Vietnamese. Invaluable.
Superb food. I had noodles & veg; Cathy, the sticky-rice she adores & veg. Shared. Another tall bottle of Beer Lao, two glasses. Changed places around little table --J.B. brought us special chairs --Cat didnt want the full blast of air from fan but no worries for me! In fact, the temp. around 30C throughout my stay has been perfect. I experienced the heat once, the day of the visit to the Living Museum/Temple (Wat Phrokeo) --the sudden sting after hours of exposure. But next day i didnt show any sign of burning, though yesterday i had less energy (pun : burnt out). Dragged myself around. Content to be in the I:Cat gallery most of the day.
Pleasant flight in the little plane from Vientiane. Apparently Australian Embassy would once advise against travelling on Air Lao. But it's OK now, Cathy adds. Hostess forgot my breakfast box & obviously didnt hear or rejected my request for cup of tea. Very Lao.
We werent confident of finding a tuk-tuk so early in the morning but there they were --walked around the corner from I:Cat, past the temple (the first Cathy took me to in June '09). Brief exchange with workers she knew then a tuk tuk found us. Cat bargains dramatically --the fare is agreed. A long drive to the Airport. Early morning Vientiane --many people walking, exercising --unheard of a few years ago Cat says --health-conscious Western model (or Chinese?) amusing to us obviously in need of same!
No one in the airport concourse --graciously received & ushered through the immigration & embarkation controls --kop jai & Happy New Year! --Pi Mi Lao has begun --everyone in good mood. Before we left I:Cat the monks walked past on their alms trail. Auspicious.
Here at Suvarnabhum went straightaway to Thai International desk --got our boarding passes and then Cathy had her return flight times (Heathrow to Bangkok) changed. No fuss. She has a certain way & the luck goes with her! The later flight means we have all of next Saturday to get to London from Weymouth-on-the-Nod!
Last night Cath insisted we go to the temple to have the buddha we bought for Bernard [Hemensley] blessed. Initially thought we'd missed the opportunity for a blessing --the temple proper had closed --but then we saw the old monk (large man, abbot-like) sitting in his pavilion to the side of the temple in the forecourt. Cathy knows exactly what to do --exemplary courageous!
She steps up into the small pavilion facing the decorated or covered Buddhas alongside the temple wall. Drops to her knees, bows head, gives the sleeping buddha statue, which we bought at the Living Museum/Temple previous day, to the monk, an old Buddha himself. She makes her request or it is implicit in her actions. He examines the statue, turns it over, then launches into talking/singing chant. Halfway through the ceremony a Lao family joins her, --they pray, make their offering to the monk. He takes their gift, continues chanting over the buddha statue. Cathy comes away happy at task acquitted. She's scrupulous about custom/tradition. Lao convention that artefacts must be blessed to retain significance. My understanding is that the statue is an icon, a reflection of God, a palpable connection to the divine. We feel blessed too for our journey to England. Actually, the wish or prayer I made at the Living Museum (Cathy prompted me) was that our visit to Bernard in his house would be a happy one.